Growing up, my mother did not teach my sister and me about Korea. She did not teach us Korean. She did not feed us Korean food, and by middle school, my sister and I balked at her stinky jars of kimchee.
“Do you have to eat that stuff?” we complained as we ate our Apple Jacks or spaghetti with Prego.
My sister and I each had a hanbok for our elementary school’s “World Culture” day, but aside from such token attempts to acknowledge our culture, my mother made no effort to pass on any kind of heritage. She wanted her daughters to be good little Americans.
I took ballet, grew up reading Judy Blume and Nancy Drew, ate Rocky Road ice cream and Taco Bell, and watched American movies (though we had to walk out on Gremlins because my mother found it too offensive). The standard of beauty were Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith. There was no K-pop as far I can remember and even if it had been around, I doubt I would have liked it. I maintained a flaming hot crush on Ricky Shroeder and, eventually, two blonde-haired blue-eyed boys.
This mindset no doubt came from my mother’s own complicated relationship to her country.
Having been raised a girl in a small town of a poor, war-torn country, my mother had little hope of making it in the world. That South Korea made no apologies about being patriarchal only sealed the deal in terms of her wanting to leave. My mother grew up doing all the household errands, making runs to the local well for the family’s washing and dinner, while her brothers were given time to study. My mother received a ninth grade education, the end of the line for girls in her town, and thereafter received no more formal education in Korea, a great loss for my mother who loved school.
As she and her sisters grew older, the girls were the ones who found gainful employment and paid the tuitions for their brothers to attend the finest universities. The idea was that these brothers would eventually give back to their sisters when their sisters needed help, but that’s not the way it worked out. One brother took his prestigious Seoul University degree and went back to their small hometown to become an anchovy fisherman. None of the brothers, I’m told, ever paid the sisters back. The boys in the family, not surprisingly, stayed in the country while the sisters ended up immigrating to America.
In response to the oppressive patriarchal expectations imposed on her in Korea, my mother fully embraced the seductive images of America that came in the form of Audrey Hepburn starring in Roman Holiday and the good looking Charleton Heston in Ben Hur. The movies she watched at the Yongsan army base where she worked taught my mother that America was a great and powerful country filled with beautiful people. The girls were cute and peppy and seemed to command power over their men. The men, dashing and worldly, fought for good.
My mother worked at the EM club. Here she was: a small town girl from a little-known country hobnobbing with high-ranking military officers. She had somehow gained entry to an American military base with its slick asphalt roads and oversized sense of space. All of it, from the canned soup and Hershey’s chocolate bars to the military vehicles cruising around the base, was indubitably superior to South Korea, then just a couple years older than she was.
One day, the gatekeeper at Yongsan asked her out. He had been eyeing her for some time, and my mother, twenty-something, dressed to impress and not betraying any of her poor, rural ways, snagged up what she believed was the best of the best. In his impressive uniform, he looked “so clean cut,” my mother said. “Very handsome.” They married, without being able to fully communicate, and it was only after she moved to America that she saw her husband for what he was.
“So lajy,” she told me more than once, emphasizing the “so” with a guttural vibration of her epiglottis. They divorced soon after coming to America, and my mother began a single-life in Hawaii, where a small community of Koreans had resided since 1919, when Syngman Rhee, the future President of the ROK, sought asylum after a failed coup.
The number of Koreans in Hawaii, however, came nowhere close the number of Japanese in the islands. Whereas the Japanese had been coming to Hawaii as plantation workers since the mid-1800s, establishing their roots and burgeoning in number, the Koreans in the 1990s, according to one census report I saw, comprised just 1% of the population of Hawaii. Whereas the Japanese had been taking up leadership positions in finance, education, and government, with prominent figures such as Daniel Inouye and Patsy Mink becoming the first Asian Americans in the Senate, “Korea” was a foreign and little-known place. It might well have been Uzbekistan. Despite the proliferation of Asians in Hawaii, Koreans were nevertheless a minority.
As a result, growing up Korean, I felt shame for my heritage. My mother was an immigrant single-mother who knew nothing about Hawaii or America. She had an accent and didn’t understand the nightly news. On the hand-made sign she hung on the door of her dress shop, she wrote simply, “Close.” Recognizing, even as a 5th grader, that this was wrong, I did not hesitate to fix it, adding a little “d” to the end, which I thought made it unquestionably better. I questioned my mother on everything and had little respect for her, though she managed a successful dress shop for most of my childhood. My mother dressed funny, talked funny. She was superstitious and didn’t know how to secure a good husband.
Occasionally, friends of hers would come into the dress shop and they would gossip for hours about I don’t know what. Some of the women, unemployed but married, me that one day I would want to have a child. I rolled my eyes at them and assured them I would never want to have a child. Some of my mother’s friends were single bar maids who wore gold leopard leotards and open-toed stilettos. None of the women were beautiful, as far as I could tell, and they did not seem to be doing anything respectable with their lives. Being Korean, I learned, meant being uneducated and vulgar. And I wanted no part of that. As it turned out, in running her own business, my mother was the one doing something respectable with her life but I didn’t realize this at the time.
Some of the adolescent rejection of my mother was normal, just part of the course of the next generation staking out its values and style, but part of the rejection was a rejection of Korea. My dislike of my mother was an extension of my dislike of Korea, and I remain a great critic of my mother’s home country.
Korea continues to be a homogeneous, superficial, status-oriented, insecure, patriarchal society. It is a country where teenage girls routinely get plastic surgery for their eyelids and where schools put up mirrors in the hallways so girls will feel bad about their body and hopefully, eat less. It is a country where parents spend as much as $100,000 to stretch their children out so they will be taller by an inch or two. They do this because they know that being taller and more attractive will mean getting a higher paying job, and in the end that’s all that matters. It is a country where college admissions directors, when faced with two equally qualified candidates, will resort to the picture to decide who is better looking. It is a country where, for many years, boys lost their virginity to prostitutes once they completed their three-year military service. It is a country that frantically built up its infrastructure in preparation for the Olympics in the 1990s, building impressive symbols of civilization that were not up to code. It is a nation with a tragic history of colonization that has for several decades been trying to prove something no matter the cost.
I suspect I inherited this critical attitude of Korea from my mother who herself rejected her home country. Having left Korea to marry a white man, my mother was one of many Korean women taken in by the image of the great United States only to find herself alone later in life. She had been lured by the old myth of America as the land of opportunity, and for a time, it was, but when her luck ran out, she found herself a single mother, oceans away from the family and country that knew her. Hers is a tale of many women, victims of Korea’s patriarchy and history of colonization.